Both Then and Now: A Review of Tatsuki Fujimoto’s 17-21
It’s difficult to engage in contemporary anime discourse without running into Chainsaw Man, Tatsuki Fujimoto’s weird, bloody, and fascinating mega-hit. Perhaps bolstered by MAPPA’s lovingly crafted anime adaptation last year, VIZ media has started publishing Fujimoto’s pre-Chainsaw Man works, most notably his one-shots Look Back and Goodbye, Eri, both of which are acclaimed by critics and fans alike.
I was lukewarm on Chainsaw Man’s anime until the eighth episode. I still question if the work is as good as its fandom makes it out to be, but I’m beginning to understand why folks have gravitated towards it. There’s a messy honesty to Chainsaw Man, from the boob-focused MC to its breakneck pace and surprising moments of intimacy .
All this is to say that when I was perusing my local bookstore a couple weeks back, a bright orange manga caught my eye: Before Chainsaw Man: 17–21, a collection of four one-chapter, one-shot stories written by the now-famous author in his early years. In my ongoing quest to understand what makes Fujimoto worthy of his prestige, I picked up it and Look Back on a whim.
I read through 17–21 in an evening, bouncing from aliens with a dislike of chickens to an assassin just looking for forgiveness. What follows are my thoughts on those four stories — their impact, their meanings, and their status as standalone works, divorced from Fujimoto’s ongoing opus.
Note: All four stories will be discussed in their entirety, which means spoilers abound! Also, please excuse the wonky manga screencaps — I worked with what I had.
A Couple Clucking Chickens Were Still Kickin’ in the Schoolyard
The first story in this collection is also undoubtedly its weakest. A Couple Clucking Chickens is a sloppy, nonsensical story that bears the hallmarks of a writer still developing his voice and an artist still finding his footing. It’s not without its merit, certainly, but nor does it leave an impact beyond mild amusement.
It’s 2019: humanity is extinct after a war against alien invaders. A young alien wakes up, stops his blaring alarm, and heads to school. Strangely, the aliens have adopted human sensibilities and routines, wearing the same clothes as us and conducting their lives as humans once did. This young alien is on animal feeding duty at his school today, and he heads to the chicken coop. It’s here that the work reveals its true main characters: Yuuto and Ami, two humans disguised as chickens (read: wearing painfully obvious chicken mascot heads) to preserve their lives.
What follows is a fast-paced tale of sacrifice as the young alien realizes the two chickens are humans and vows to protect them. The rest of the story is fairly predictable, save for one last-minute twist: Yuuto was an alien, too, disguised as a human! He sacrifices himself to save Ami after a transfer student realizes the truth and tries to eat the kids.
If this all sounds like nonsense plot developments pulled out of thin air, that’s because it is. The story reminded me of the kinds of comics fifth graders draw idly in their notebooks: the threads are tenuous and the characters embody typical notions of hero and villain with eleventh-hour secrets to contrive an ending. Truthfully, I think the story would have been better served if Yuuto was actually a human. Revealing him as an alien argues that humans ultimately can’t save themselves, a theme reinforced by the ending:
Humanity never had a chance, and though the next page concludes, “Remember the story of how, shortly before the fall of humankind, an alien and a human lived together, hand in hand,” the story nonetheless asserts that that connection was not enough. It’s a bleak ending, depicting reconciliation as not enough to combat annihilation. Yuuto and Ami’s relationship was meaningful, the work tells us, but given its short length, it does not do enough to show that relationship in motion. The survivors cluck, they fret, they change, and they die.
And yet, there’s something strangely endearing about a work so concerned with the degree to which our bonds can save us. The amateurish art reinforces its status as the early musings of a confused artist. It’s clear that Fujimoto is reckoning with themes bigger than these 31 pages allow. Themes of humanity’s weakness, certainly, but also what we do despite that weakness. And, as the couple of clucking chickens embody, we survive. Until we die, we survive.
Sasaki Stopped a Bullet
Where A Couple of Clucking Chickens struggled to find hope in a bleak world, Sasaki Stopped a Bullet is an outright assertion of humanity’s singular ability to believe. It is my favourite story in the collection, chiefly due to its focused scope and singular, well-executed idea: Sasaki really does stop a bullet.
Sasaki is a fairly typical manga hero. Anxious and unremarkable, he pines after his young teacher, Kawaguchi, to the point that he refers to her as “God.” One day, a disheveled man enters their classroom with a gun, firing a shot into the ceiling as he proclaims that Kawaguchi-sensei ruined his life after she rejected him. She tries to reason with him, and he demands that she have sex with him if she wants to live. The situation seems grim…
That is until our boy Sasaki steps in, unwilling to let God give herself over to the classroom invader. A flashback reveals that Sasaki dreams of becoming an astronaut — a dream others mock him for, except Kawaguchi-sensei. That belief both drives Sasaki forward and propels him to act when his classmates remain still. The man fires his gun,
It’s a wonderfully realized moment, the culmination of increasing tension mixed with asserted ideals. Sasaki catches the bullet because he believes he can, because he believes in the incredibly small chance that something unbelievable could happen. He turns that belief back onto the man, arguing that he is from the future and the man will go on to have a successful life after he is released from prison, complete with a family and a stable career. Sasaki’s passion is enough to save the day and save the man.
Sasaki Stopped a Bullet’s steadfast belief in, well, the power of belief is remarkably well-realized for such a short work. The art is a step above the previous story while still feeling messy and decidedly human. Sasaki’s passion comes through in his facial expressions, simultaneously cowardly and brave, and the man’s aggression-turned-sadness is incredibly effective. In 2023, a work that so wholly commits to the notion that, yes, you can achieve your dreams and, yes, it is okay to believe in unbelievable things is both welcome and powerful.
The last-page reveal that Kawaguchi was actually a god and helped Sasaki stop the bullet seems like it would cheapen this core theme, but it instead deepens it. Sasaki finds out twenty years later on the moon — his dream achieved. He lived his life believing that he did something remarkable because he did; he just had a little help. Our immense belief in ourselves needs to extend to others.
Sasaki Stopped a Bullet is a more mature work than A Couple of Clucking Chickens, showcasing Fujimoto’s growth as a writer. Still unafraid to delve into the alarming depths of humanity, he is equally willing here to show what we do in those depths. Some might argue that maturity comes from realizing the hopelessness of our world — I, and this work, argue that it comes from how we combat that hopelessness. How we stop a bullet.
Love is Blind
What starts as a simple confession quickly turns into the absurd in Love is Blind, the collection’s first of two stories about love. Like Sasaki, Love is Blind captured me with its singular focus and optimistic themes about sticking to our convictions in the face of opposition, about how it’s okay to blind ourselves in the pursuit of what we love.
Ibuki is a successful and well-respected student council president, but he only has one thing on his mind: confessing his love to Yuri, his kouhai and vice president. What follows is a walk home in which Ibuki repeatedly tries to confess to Yuri, only for something to intervene right before the golden moment. A student wanting Ibuki to help plan the graduation ceremony, a mugger wanting Ibuki’s clothes, and an alien warning the pair that they are going to invade and destroy the earth right away all stand in his path, but our intrepid protagonist’s mind is made up. He deftly defies them all, eventually boldly proclaiming his confession.
Like Sasaki stopping the bullet, the confession is superbly executed, releasing the tension built up by the previous close calls. We cheer for Ibuki because he cheers for himself, never wavering from his goal. The story pairs nicely with Sasaki because of their shared themes, both asserting our uniquely human ability to set our minds to something and do it no matter the obstacle. Ibuki repeating to himself that his mind is made up and his key phrase, “that’s the least of my priorities,” are impactful in their sincerity. Everything is right now for our young hero, and rather than highlight the power of believing, Ibuki’s eventual confession argues that it is okay to ignore what we need to do for what we have to do.
I also need to mention the humour in this story. The sheer escalation of Ibuki’s circumstances had me chuckling, and the strange humanity of the alien was the highlight of this. He returns to his ship and gushes about how it’s really not a great time to destroy Earth: he got to witness a confession! Within that moment, though, is a furthering of the story’s key idea. Unlike A Couple of Clucking Chickens, Love is Blind shows how the genuineness of humanity and the will of the human spirit can stave off disaster. In the face of destruction, death, and grad, what matters is what we do for ourselves.
Each of the stories in this collection have a brief afterword penned by Fujimoto. In Love is Blind’s, he mentions that “Jump SQ editorial told me that I take 31 pages to do what could be accomplished in 16.” Perhaps that’s what makes his, as of these stories, still-developing artistic voice so singular, though — by pushing his characters to the brink and his narratives to the edge of believability, he touches upon something strangely intimate, something remarkably universal. Something that Shikaku, being the final story in this collection, works to articulate in its violent and supernatural tale of connection.
Shikaku’s life is one defined by tragedy. Raised by abusive parents while displaying serial killer-like tendencies, she nonetheless maintains an honest sense of right and wrong. As a young adult, Shikaku is an accomplished hit-woman, taking out her targets with unempathetic, yet somehow compassionate, abandon. She is hired by Mr. Yugeru… to kill him. Yugeru is a vampire, unable to die despite her repeated, visceral attempts. Shikaku leaves unsuccessful, but finds herself drawn to the immortal man.
Yugeru sees on the news that Shikaku checked herself in at the doctor thinking her budding feelings were nothing more than a cold — she was quickly spotted and surrounded. The hit-woman speaks directly to the vampire through the live feed, realizing her feelings are love. Yugeru rushes to the hospital and finds Shikaku on the brink of death, deciding to turn her into a vampire to live out eternity with her. They live happily ever after, Yugeru with a new outlook on life and Shikaku forgiven by the one person who understands her.
Shikaku is not particularly great, its message of finding your person amidst a world fundamentally against you muddled by its short length. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that would most benefit from a longer page count. Shikaku and Yugeru both being somewhat inscrutable is certainly a deliberate choice, but it also leaves the ending feeling somewhat unearned. An inhuman human and a human inhuman find love despite everything, but where is the intimacy found in Sasaki Stopped a Bullet and Love is Blind? Shikaku had the potential to craft a touching tale but stumbles in its execution.
Although, perhaps that’s the point. No one understands Shikaku, despite her efforts to connect, and Yugeru’s immortality detaches him from humanity. That they find each other is a miracle, certainly — one we might not be privy to. Perhaps Fujimoto is attempting to depict a love story about empathy through two characters lacking in it. We search for relatability when we watch two characters fall for each other; we want to imagine ourselves in their places, or at least on the sidelines cheering them on. By crafting a love story devoid of space for us to insert ourselves, Fujimoto develops his voice beyond the eminence of humanity towards its limits.
In doing so, he brings the story back to humanity clucking at the end of the world. Our belief is a powerful thing — it drives us forward and makes the impossible possible. The collection’s first story asserts that that’s not enough, sure, but Shikaku argues something more mature: what we want has its limits, and there’s a whole world just beyond. We don’t necessarily need to understand it to appreciate its value. We should be cheering for Shikaku and Yugeru, not wondering how they got there and if they deserve it.
17–21 is a strange collection of four disparate tales that, together, weave a profound, if messy, picture of humanity at its heights, depths, infinities, and limits. Though the actual quality of the stories vary wildly, their underlying themes and attempts to plumb the depths of what makes us make the collection as a whole recommendable for at least one read-through.
Tatsuki Fujimoto remains an enigma to me, but I think that’s intentional. These works are messy, chaotic, and confused — just like we are. There are plenty of connective threads to Chainsaw Man, sure, but I think 17–21 stands out as a writer developing his voice while trying to ascertain the value of humanity amidst a deeply scary world. Aliens might invade and destroy us all, or they might be so touched by a passionate confession that they call off the whole thing. A ennui-laden vampire might simply die, or he might finally find purpose in an unlikely body. A young man could buckle under the pressures that threaten us, but his mind is made up. And, a nervous teenager could stand idly by, but he caught the bullet.
That’s us, baby.